F-Stop Cafe - Point and Shoot and Bridge Cameras

September 17, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

All about the camera - Point and Shoots and Bridge Cameras

As I mentioned in the previous post on Mobile Phone Cameras I get asked a lot about the type of camera I use and what is the best to buy etc etc.  I almost universally respond with "it depends."  Then I usually launch into a series of questions around what kind of pictures you want to take.  I ask those questions because it can greatly change the perspective of your needs and which cameras will be suitable to your type of picture taking.  This post is a follow up to the first one and will discuss what is probably the largest segment of cameras available today.  The point and shoot and bridge camera segment. 

Point and Shoot

Point and shoots, commonly known in the industry as compact digital cameras, are the mainstay of most of the camera manufacturers today.  They are generally marketed using terms like smallest, lightest, thinnest etc, because the point and shoot is marketed as a camera you keep with you all the time.  In your purse, in your pocket etc.  These are typically some of the smallest cameras available and, with the exception of the cell phone camera, probably the most convenient to keep handy to snap those snap shots.   As I said in my previous post, "the best camera to use is the one you have with you" and these certainly make that possible.   As with any camera system there is almost always compromises to be made and you have to decide which you can live with for your intended purpose.

Nikon Coolpix S3300

One of there really neat things about compact digital cameras are some of the real consumer friendly The compact digital performance continues to march on as technology enables more capabilities with these little bodies.  Things like HD video recording, panoramic modes, waterproof and shock proof cases, and all kinds of creative modes to take the difficulty out of snapping that perfect pic.  In addition to the feature sets the size is hard to pass up as you can keep all that in your pocket ready at a moments notice.  Of course all this comes with some compromises as always and I will get into those in the pros and cons below.

Bridge Cameras

Bridge cameras are a term I like to use for cameras that are neither SLR nor simple point and shoots.  They tend tend to have the look of a SLR but without the removable lens.  I use the term bridge camera because they are a great stepping stone between a compact and a SLR.  Generally speaking they are more capable than the compact but also much more bulky and less portable.  Here we are with those pesky compromises.  Bridge cameras generally have a slightly larger sensor, some as big as a normal crop sensor SLR (crop sensor will be in another blog post when I discuss SLR's :) ).  However under the surface they are a larger format compact digital that provide some solutions to the standard small compact digital.  That's why they are included in this post so that I can compare and contrast them against their smaller siblings.  

Nikon Coolpix L810

So without further delay lets talk about pluses and minuses as I see them in both the Compact Digital and then the Bridge Cameras in relation to the compacts.

Compact Digital - Positives 

  • Larger sensors - Over a cell phone most use sensors that are a bit larger usually meaning a few more megapixels and better light gathering.  Right of the bat you will see better image quality.  However as I mentioned the lines are being blurred and some cell phones are being packed with spectacular sensors capable of really amazing images.
  • Small and Lightweight - With the growth of smart phones, even some phones are bigger than some of the cameras in this category.  They are small enough to fit in your pocket or bag so they are always close.
  • Rugged - Many models are now very tough in their construction, some even capable of being used under water.  Great for poolside snapshots and videos, or for the adventure seeker who wants a camera to work in whatever conditions they are in. 
  • Simple and Automatic - They are not called point and shoot for a reason.  Most are incredibly simple and fully automated.  You turn it on and take the shot.  How much easier can it get?
  • Feature Rich - Because they are designed to be automatic and easy there are many modes and features that improve the users ability to get a shot.  Things like smile detection and face detection are now becoming pretty common place.  Basically these features can see faces and ensure that not only are they in focus but they wont take the picture unless everyone is smiling.  Pretty cool I think.
  • Cost - While the price range for these cameras can be pretty wide, it is generally possible to pick up a decent performer for a very inexpensive price. 
  • Image quality - Just like the price, image quality in this class varies greatly but not always based on price.  Against a cell phone camera in most cases the inexpensive point and shoot will do better still and video work then the cell will.
  • Zoom - Against a cell phone the compact generally will have a greater zoom capability.  Here though be careful because your only interested in the optical zoom.  Ignore digital zoom as it is really more of a marketing bullet item then a useful feature.  Most compacts have an optical zoom range that floats between a 35mm equivalent of 20-30mm to 100-150mm.

Compact Digital - Negatives 

  • Slow - Compact have never been considered speed demons.  And of course there are exceptions, but in general this class of camera have pretty slow shutter releases as well as start up times, focus and zoom speed.  Slow start up time means that while the event is happening you may be waiting for your camera to fully power on.  Slow shutter release means that the time it takes from the moment you press the button to the moment the camera takes the picture can be agonizingly long.   This one item is cause for more cut off heads, arms and other parts of the picture as well as blurry pictures, and completely missing subjects then any other cause.  Understanding the delay can go a long way to take wonderful pictures with these cameras. 
  • Zoom - Yep this was a plus but its also a negative.  While having greater optical zooms over cell phones, the thin construction simply limits the zoom range to a pretty narrow range.   Generally speaking they tend to start on the wider side and giving up some of the reach.
  • Low Light Performance - Capturing light is what your doing when you take pictures.  Contrasted to the mobile phone these sensors are larger and can capture more light.  However, as manufacturers stuff more and more pixels on those little sensors they also limit the low light capability.   Still in most cases better than a mobile phone, shooting in lower light will produce less than ideal image output.
  • High Megapixel Counts - Manufacturers know that most people thing more is better and are constantly stuffing more pixels on these tiny little sensors.  Under ideal conditions this will produce higher detail pictures but in most real shooting conditions there is not as large a benefit and in some cases can contribute to the noise issue with lower light shots.  Generally speaking 10 to 12 megapixels are more than sufficient to produce decent end user sized prints. 
  • Electronic/Back LCD View Finders - Using EVF's or the back displays only to frame and take your pictures has many drawbacks.  while the screen can be larger and let you enjoy the scene more, they can be washed out in bright sun and difficult to see.  Additionally holding the camera out away from the body is not a very stable position to shoot from, leading to camera shake and poor image quality.  Vibration reduction in the cameras can only do so much :)
  • Deep Depth of Field - Simply a side effect of the smaller sensor the depth of field(that area perceived to be in focus) is much deeper, limiting your ability for creative use of shallow depth of field.

Bridge Camera - Positives 

  • Image Quality/Sensor Size - Bridge cameras generally have sensors the range from slightly larger to significantly larger then their compact counterparts.  This translates directly into better image quality and lower light performance.  Some bridge cameras rival SLR's in terms of picture quality.
  • Larger more SLR like bodies - More ergonomically designed for proper technique when taking pictures.  More familiar like the older SLR bodies.  Larger bodies also provide more space for larger batteries meaning more shots between charging. 
  • Super Zooms - Bridge cameras have also been called super zooms because they have a more SLR like lens construction and generally speaking due to their larger size have an extended zoom range as well typically ranging between a 35mm equivalent of mid to low 20's up to 200mm+.  This gives you significantly more reach under good light but again there are compromises to get that wide of a range.  Some image quality is sacrificed to get the complex lens construction to get that kind of reach.
  • Faster glass - When a photographer talks about fast glass they are specifically talking about the lens ability to gather light.  Faster glass collects more light (I will discuss this later in a post as well).  Many bridge cameras incorporate faster glass in their designs to provide better focus speed and accuracy in lower light. As well as over all more light gathering ability in lower light which translates to better low ISO performance especially when coupled with a larger sensor. 
  • More Controls - Bridge cameras also tend to start to place more controls available to the user directly vs having to hunt through menus to get to them.  Many incorporate dials that let you switch from aperture priority to shutter priority to manual and program with the twist of a button. 
  • Faster response - Bridge cameras like their bigger cousins the SLR tend to also be more responsive.  Though still not lighting fast they do tend to help alleviate the slower start up and shutter release issues with the compacts and tend to focus faster.  Though many still resort to controls for zooming some let you control the lens directly to improve zoom performance.

Bridge Camera - Negatives 

  • Cost - Bridge cameras can cost as much as some very capable entry level SLR's.  Though the prices do have a fairly wide range and the ones at the top do perform a lot closer to that of a SLR.  
  • Fixed Lens - Even though the performance of the higher end bridge camera can rival that of entry level SLR's you are still limited with the zoom range of the fixed lens.  If you need more reach or need a wider field of view you have to move yourself to complete the frame and that may not always be possible. 
  • Size and Weight - Usually heavier and larger than compacts this can be a negative if your looking for a camera to always have around.  It means now you simply cant pop it into your pocket and go.  It also means that its not as convenient to have handy when the moment strikes.  You have to decide if you want to have your camera with you or not. 
  •  Electronic/Back LCD View Finders - Most bridge cameras still rely on the EVF or the back LCD for focus and framing which again suffers in bright light situations and can be inaccurate.  


So there you have it.  Point and shoots and bridge cameras certainly have their place in the world.  They can be incredibly convenient to have on your person.  Their image quality is superior to most cell phones, can rival that of SLRs and can be significantly less that a SLR from a cost standpoint.  Compacts are great to have on hand to capture those moments that arise on a moments notice.  While faster than the cell phone cameras of today they are not speed demons.  So if capturing anything fast paced you will need to consider the fact that there is an eternity in many of these bodies between pressing the button and the shutter actually releasing.  They are inexpensive and rugged so great to have around the pool or with inquisitive small children but can be challenging to actually capture those same children when they are on the move.  They can be very simple to operate as well as begin to open up options for more creative works. 

Bottom line is while they have their issues, once understood, most of the time you can compensate for them with good technique or by modifying your scene.  Climb the price ladder a little bit and you can have a camera that can produce pictures that rival entry level SLR's but have the limitations of a fixed zoom range and lack of extended features.  They can also take video that would rival many inexpensive dedicated video cameras.  All in all they are a great package to keep in your bag or your pocket when you dont want to lug around the "big rig" and your goal is to simply capture life as it happens. 

Come back for the next installment when we talk about SLR's, SLT's and Advanced Compacts.







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